Breaking silence, ex-top cop says NSO misuse claims ‘unconnected to reality’
Alsheich firmly denies reports of widespread spying on citizenry, says he supports thorough inquiry; Bennett: If allegations substantiated, ‘I’ll go all-in on broadest probe’
Tobias (Toby) Siegal is a breaking news editor and contributor to The Times of Israel.
Former police commissioner Roni Alsheich firmly denied on Wednesday any police wrongdoing under his watch, amid the ongoing scandal surrounding the allegedly illegal use of spyware by the police during his time in office and subsequently.
Publicly addressing the controversy for the first time in a video statement sent to the media, Alsheich said the allegations against the force, if true, would have been “a deep blow to democracy, no less,” but insisted that they “have no connection to reality.”
Though allegations of police’s use of phone spyware without court oversight first appeared in the Calcalist newspaper some three weeks ago, and pointed to the method intensifying under Alsheich’s tenure in 2015-2018, he had not previously commented.
Alsheich had hitherto stayed silent, he said Wednesday, because the issue is connected to the ongoing trial of former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose police investigation he oversaw, as well as the “difficulty of addressing generalized allegations that create a cloud [of suspicion] without evidence, and without [concrete claims] to look into.”
However, with Calcalist this week publishing specific, though unsourced, claims on 26 supposed targets of the widespread hacking campaign, Alsheich said he decided he must comment.
“As there were finally names [of targets], I was able to say, as one who knows the technological systems in question, that now it is possible to confirm or reject [the claims] and get a clear view of the facts,” he said.
As for those alleged targets, he said, “the list included names of innocent people police have never suspected of any criminal wrongdoing and were never looked into by police, not with NSO’s data gathering software and not with any data gathering software.”
And “even those who appeared on the list and were suspected of offenses… were checked and it was found that investigative tools were used legally, with a court order.”
“The picture [the reports] painted has no connection to reality,” he said.
Alsheich stated his utmost trust in the police’s internal investigation of the claims, but also welcomed exhaustive outside examination “in order to repair the damage and bring back public trust in police and the rule of law. The huge damage caused to law enforcement necessitates clear and thorough answers.”
Also addressing the scandal on Wednesday, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said that all allegations “will be looked into from every direction. I believe we will get some answers soon.
“The question is whether what was reported in recent days happened or not. The wholesale use of [such spyware] against citizens can not be allowed in a democratic country. But as I said, we don’t yet know that it really happened.”
If the allegations are substantiated, the prime minister said, “I will go all-in on the broadest and most extensive government commission of inquiry.”
In a bombshell report into the use of spyware by the Israel Police published by the Calcalist newspaper Monday, it was claimed that NSO Group’s Pegasus program was deployed against senior government officials, mayors, activist leaders, journalists and former prime minister Netanyahu’s family members and advisers, all without judicial authority or oversight.
According to Ynet, Alsheich had previously told associates: “There is no way anyone could have done anything without receiving an approval.”
“Only in life or death situations, such as murder cases or ongoing pursuits, can you tell a judge in retrospect that a life was in danger and that you used spyware,” he reportedly said.
Addressing the allegations of police illegally using spyware against public figures, Alsheich said that the system would not have allowed him to do so without going through the attorney general.
“The systems were built in such a way that can’t be manipulated. If I want to monitor a public figure, I must go through the attorney general and get his approval before getting a judge to issue a court order. He can block the whole process before I even make it to the judge,” he argued.
Channel 12 earlier in the week quoted unnamed police officials as saying that “if the reports turn out to be true, [Alsheich] will need to stand trial.”
For his part, former attorney general Avichai Mandelblit told Kan news Wednesday that he had no connection to the ongoing police spying scandal and did not know if any of it was true.
In a phone call with a Kan reporter, Mandeblit said: “I don’t think anyone seriously thinks it is connected to me.”
Mandelblit, who ended his six-year tenure last week, said that the allegations were “disturbing.”
“Of course, I’m disturbed by it. I hope it’s not true,” he said.
Labor MK Gilad Kariv, chairman of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, has said that as a 27-year veteran of the Shin Bet security service, Alsheich was never the right person to lead the Israel Police.
On Wednesday, Yesh Atid MK and Deputy Public Security Minister Yoav Segalovitz criticized allegations made against Alsheich, supporting the former police commissioner.
“He is being treated as a suspect, and I can’t accept that,” Segalovitz said at the Knesset. “There is a difference between an allegation, a fact and a conclusion.”
Segalovitz also said that he does not think a state commission inquiry is necessary at this point. “Before jumping to conclusions and calling for a state inquiry committee we must examine the facts,” he said, adding that the initial reports are still being looked into.
On Tuesday, Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai continued to deny allegations that officers used spyware illegally against Israeli public and private figures, cutting short his first official visit to the UAE amid burgeoning public criticism.
He said that an internal investigation of the allegations has so far found “no evidence of breaking the law.”
According to Channel 12, Mandelblit ordered police to suspend “offensive” use of NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware until an inquiry into its use was completed, just before retiring at the end of January.
Incoming Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara has said that she intends to investigate the allegations, noting that the scandal has led to “an alarming decline of public trust in law enforcement agencies, partly due to the affair.”
She added: “This decline translates as damage to the rule of law. I plan on putting the issue of public trust in the judiciary system at the top of my agenda. The situation requires a different way of thinking. We must look inward and examine ourselves without worrying about criticism or of making changes in order to improve our work.”